Lord Houghton's Life

LORD HOUGHTON was known, in his later life at least, and will probably be remembered historically, as one of the characters of London society in his time; and in literature his place, like Rogers’, is mainly that of entertainer of celebrities. His biographer is unwilling to take this view of the matter. Mr. Reid desires and labors to show that throughout life Lord Houghton was employed in affairs of importance, and exercised powers of larger scope than he was credited with possessing; that he was both a legislator and a poet; and especially that he was a diplomatist in everything except the fact. It is doubtful whether anything is gained by a biographer who continually directs attention toward those paths of his hero which led nowhere; those ambitions which were never realized; those occupations in which, from whatever cause, He failed. If we are repeatedly told that Lord Houghton was fitted by his acquaintance and acquirements for dealing with foreign affairs, this only reminds us the more forcibly that no minister cared to employ Him i that sphere. The reason may Have been that men of politics are prejudiced against men of letters, and that, in the case of Lord Houghton, his books were the insurmountable obstacle in the way to office. At the same time, other Englishmen of his period succeeded well; enough in combining literature with statecraft; and, after all, the great fact remains that His diplomatic abilities were never tried, and in the absence of trial such abilities can hardly be taken upon trust. The belief in their own political genius is notoriously a common vanity of literary men of station.

In the matter of poetry, too, Lord Houghton does not come off much better than in that of statesmanship. Landor, at one time, thought him the greatest poet writing in England, — an opinion which, when it was uttered, was foolish, and has been the father of folly in those who reiterate it; for it surely is no honor to Lord Houghton to have been praised by mistake. Rogers also had a belief in him, it seems; and in the extracts from Lord Houghton’s commonplace books there is a telltale anecdote of Rogers saying to him, " Don’t you be so hard on Pope and Dryden; you don’t know what we may come to.” Though humorously made, the remark is more humorously received by us; and this is because Rogers and Milnes were so very much smaller poets than even their humorous imagination had capacity to contain. The most that can be said for the early poems of Milnes is that he made songs for the people when he could not make their laws, and a few of these popular ditties survive ; and that in some half dozen other pieces he exhibited a certain literary gift. His actual work in poetry, taken altogether, is of very slight consequence in the literature of Victoria. To remind us that Lord Houghton started even with Tennyson and Browning, not to mention others, and that he was thought to have the better chance, is really to impress upon our minds unduly how far behind them he fell in the race. His poems, like his acquaintance with French statesmen and politicians, are a part of his life, and find a place in his biography; but Mr. Reid has placed an emphasis upon these things which, to our thinking, results in a false perspective, and the reader is led mainly, not to see his brilliant success as a man of the world with all its materializing influences, but to reflect how disagreeably disappointed Lord Houghton must have been at his failures in politics and in literature. Mr. Reid thinks that the current notion of Lord Houghton undervalues his talents, and forthwith he sets out to prove to us, by documents often dull and wearisome, that he was different from what every one thought him to be; that the reputation he bore in the world was legendary and hopelessly derogatory to his real worth; and that a new conception, drawn from these two volumes, must be substituted for that of the world in which he lived and died. This biography is, consequently, very labored and apologetic, and one feels as if he were reading a defense instead of a story, and entertaining a motion for a new trial of his lordship’s character instead of listening to the verdict of his own times and friends. This is all very amiable in Mr. Reid, and very dutiful, but it injures the literary attractiveness of his work.

In spite of Mr. Reid’s best efforts, we find the statesmanship of Lord Houghton as problematical and his verses as thin as ever; but his personality is as interesting and his society as entertaining as when he was alive. His first felicity, out of the many good gifts that fortune gave him, was to be made one of that group of collegians at Cambridge concerning which literary history will not soon be silent. The days of the Union, of Tennyson’s prize poem, of Arthur Hallam’s reprint of Adonais, and of the ever - memorable expedition to the undergraduate world of Oxford in advocacy of the poetry of Shelley were great college days, and the story of them is full of interest. Something is gained because the account is largely in Lord Houghton’s own words. It is true that the reader does not get so near to the group of Tennyson and to that poet’s early manhood as in the life of Edward Fitzgerald; there does not appear to have been the sort of intimacy between Milnes and the others which reveals more than the externals of student companionship; but, on the whole, the narrative is the best that we have of the Cambridge of the time, and it is supplemented by a few, a very few, examples of that rara avis, a letter of Tennyson’s. The diction of these two or three friendly notes, we may remark in passing, amply sustains the praise Fitzgerald gave to the poet’s prose, which stands out on the page like another language. But it was after Milnes went up to London that he began to show his metal, and then he was already modified from the national type by his long residence abroad and his assimilation of Italian manners. He made a fair figure in Parliament: and with his evidently keen interest in his own success, and his controlling passion to know everybody and to get a good place in the social throng, he soon made his talents tell. It seems to us that he did really make the most of himself, notwithstanding what his biographer alleges about the blocking of his career in polities by the prejudice in high places against entrusting business to writers of books.

With the rest of his endowments, he was strongly gifted with a very independent spirit and much self - confidence; he showed this early in life, in his relations with Ids father, and continually in his relations toward his constituency. He did not have in him the making of a good party man, and this of itself was enough to limit his political achievement under any circumstances. It is plain, too, that where he took a personal line of conduct politically his judgment was not very good, as, for example, in his propositions with regard to Ireland. Yet he looked for office, and was repeatedly discouraged by being passed over when his friends obtained power. He never was a leader in Parliament; but he found opportunity to do some excellent work of a serious nature, and in his efforts in behalf of the founding of juvenile reformatories he earned lasting gratitude. In becoming a Liberal he followed his natural instincts, and he was one of those converts to progress who became more liberal with every change of the times.

He carried on his literary life at the same time with his politics, and published both poetry and prose; but he must have been soon convinced of the futility of his attempt to keep pace with the authors of his age. He had a high opinion, apparently, of his work, and was always much pleased by any sign of its having made its way with the public: but he could not be blind to the fact that he was out of the race. He found the best compensation for such a failure in the vitality in himself of the literary taste which made it his pleasure to take a particular interest in the society of men of letters, and gave to him the delights of patronage. His aid to the young and those in difficult circumstances came from high motives, and prove that he possessed a heart of unusual sympathy and warmth, more easily touched to good actions than is common with men of his class. The story of his care for the young Scotch poet, David Gray, is one of great honor to himself, and it stands as a striking example of qualities in him which seem often to have been exercised unknown to the world. Incidents like this, which are not obtrusively put forward, help to make his character more justly valued, and are a gain to his reputation; and with them belongs the account of his faithful friendship with Charles MacCarthy. It is in such parts of the narrative that we come nearest to that humaneness and amiability of Lord Houghton which won for him the warm regard of so many various men, both English and foreigners, which is the most notable thing in his career. It is true, also, that his eccentricity or originality of character interested them on its own account. In his ways and manners he was quite an uncommon person, and in his conversation there was always a fund of entertainment, owing to his knowledge of the unwritten about men and events; and though men began by being interested in that personality which Disraeli described with such vigor and extravagance, they often ended by regarding him with some warmth of feeling, which in many cases became true affection for the kindliness of his nature. This portrait of Lord Houghton as a man of the world, with many sincere friends in private life, benevolent in temperament, serviceable in some parts of legislation, and respectable in poetry, is, on the whole, the impression made by him when alive, and sustained by this biography.

In one respect only these volumes are disappointing. It was to be hoped that, as Lord Houghton saw much of men of letters and corresponded with them, there would be more of literary interest in his memorials. There is really very little that is of any importance for the literary history of the period. The letters contain next to nothing of contemporary opinion of our own or of past literature, and few anecdotes or sayings. The record is rather that of small events, of visits, of travels not very remarkable, — a sort of diary. It is particularly disappointing to find so few descriptions of scenes, since Lord Houghton was fond of seeing everything that was going on and everybody who had ever done anything above the common. The narrative of the opening of the Suez Canal is the most striking piece of such description as was hoped for, but it is not very well done. Politics really occupies the place of literature in these volumes. The biographer introduces this for the purpose of showing how Lord Houghton missed his vocation; but, except what relates to Louis Philippe, most of it could well have been spared. The literary barrenness of the work seems to have been inevitable; and we can only surmise that men kept their talk for Lord Houghton’s breakfasts, and left it out of their letters. An attempt is made to remedy this by inserting at the end some pages of short extracts from his commonplace books, in which he put down the good sayings of the men he knew, and also his own. These are not very clever, and Sydney Smith’s jokes seem mostly vapid; but in a collection of anecdotes the best are apt to pall after a page or two.

  1. The Life, Letters, and Friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, First Lord lHoughton. By T. WEMYSS REID. Introduction by RICHARD HENRY STODDARD. In two volumes. New York: Cassell Publishing Company.